Conservatives believe that America is an exceptional nation because, unlike any other nation, it is founded on an idea -- the idea that "all men are created equal" and are endowed by their creator with "certain unalienable rights," among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To secure these rights, a government is given "just powers from the consent of the governed."
In these first few words of our Declaration of Independence, we find the first principles that have guided America for nearly two and a half centuries -- liberty and equality, individual rights and limited government. The idea that political power ultimately rest with the people and not with any monarch or parliament was truly revolutionary.
The Constitution builds on the idea that "We the people" are sovereign. But who were the "people" in whom the Founders had such confidence? "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people," John Adams said. "It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
Our form of republican government, he was saying, requires not merely the consent of the governed but their ability to govern themselves. So the first duty of the people is to ensure that they remain a moral people.
The Founders knew that no piece of paper could ensure liberty. Only a people steeped in the principles that animated the Declaration could do that.
Further, liberty depended not upon individuals living in isolation but on what Edmund Burke called the "little platoons" of society: families, religious congregations, and other voluntary associations. The Founders believed that if the institutions of civic virtue remained free and strong, the American people would remain self-governing and free.
But freedom is not guaranteed. As Ronald Reagan said, freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. So the second duty of the people is the pass the torch of freedom to the next generation.
Many on the Left claim to favor civil society. But "Progressives" see the maintenance of civil society as the primary responsibility of government -- giving it the right to speak for the people and to assert a moral authority greater than that of the people. Progressives argue that only the state can produce good works. This assertion is roundly rejected by conservatives, who point, for example, to the trillion-dollar failure of the "Great Society" to end poverty.
Big Government invariably weakens and even impoverishes the people in body and spirit. In sharp contrast, the little platoons of society -- our families, our churches, our communities -- strength and enrich all our lives.
The lesson is clear: government must encourage these social institutions if it wishes to foster a civil society based on a free, independent and patriotic people.
The third duty of the people, then, is to remain faithful to the first principles of liberty and equality, individual rights and limited government, to nourish the family and the other little platoons of society, and to encourage a love of country.
In his Farewell Address, President Reagan called on the nation to foster what he called "informed patriotism." Patriotism, he said, had to be "well grounded" in popular culture and to recognize that "America is freedom ... and freedom is special and rare."
American freedom, he declared, began with the American memory, and if that was not preserved, the result would be the erosion of the American spirit.
Where does the preservation begin? he asked. In the home and around the kitchen table. If parents haven't been teaching their children what it means to be an American, Reagan said, they have failed in their obligation to be good parents.
It is critical that we know and study the Constitution so that we can defend what we have achieved under it -- a government of, by, and for the people. We must pass along our history to the next generation so as to preserve the ordered liberty bequeathed to us by the Founders.
Ed Feulner is founder of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).